Collection 1940s–1970s

Gordon Parks. Untitled, Chicago, Illinois. 1957

Inkjet print, 18 × 12 3/16" (45.7 × 31 cm). Gift of The Gordon Parks Foundation

Curator, Sarah Meister: This wall is filled with pictures from Gordon Parks’ 1957 photo story The Atmosphere of Crime. My name is Sarah Meister. I’m a curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art.

Gordon Parks was the first Black staff photographer for LIFE Magazine. Parks and a reporter went across the United States looking at what crime looked like. And their answer was quite surprising. Parks managed to preserve the anonymity of the so-called criminals and by doing that he actually undermined whether we should be considering them criminals at all. Now he did this by cropping so we rarely see the faces of anyone who’s accused of a crime. We see them instead in silhouette, in blur, in low light situations. As a counterpoint it’s the policemen and the detectives that are rendered with blistering specificity.

That impulse to protect the anonymity of those accused of crimes it just feels with every passing day more relevant. And to do that and also harness such an incredible artistic sensibility, I find it incredibly moving.

Artist, Gordon Parks: I have found out that, whenever I could, it was always better to take that venom and that thing that builds hatred in you, and to turn it into work. I'm an objective reporter with a subjective heart. I can't help but have empathy with people. It's more or less expressing things for people who can't speak for themselves, whoever, you know, that I've found throughout the world that were the underdogs and people were taking advantage of them, I try to speak for them. In that way, I speak for myself.